Vietnam’s path on COVID-19 and corruption

Author: David Brown, California

COVID-19 was unleashed in Vietnam in June 2021, a year after most of East Asia. Until June, countermeasures and aggressive contact tracing had kept the pandemic at bay and allowed the economy to continue to grow. These successes may have produced a false sense of security. Vietnam had almost no vaccine in stock, forcing it to implement a draconian lockdown in Ho Chi Minh City and surrounding provinces while it urgently negotiated supplies.

By September, doses were plentiful and the regime, spooked by signs that some manufacturing orders were being diverted from Vietnam, declared the nation “will be living with COVID-19”. Hanoi’s bet seems successful. After contracting sharply in the third quarter of 2021, the Vietnamese economy revived in the fourth. For the full year, the country recorded GDP growth of 2.6% and now looks set to return in 2022 to its usual annual growth rate of 6% plus.

The year began with the 13th Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) in late January – the closing ceremony of a month of intra-party politics aimed at renewing leadership and reconfirming party doctrine. In the months leading up to the congress, it became clear that General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s favorite had no chance of winning the approval of the CPV Central Committee.

Rather than ceding party leadership to then-prime minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Trong manipulated internal rules to effect his own re-election for a third five-year term and install another “party faction” figure, Pham Minh. Chinh as Prime Minister. Phuc and another “government faction” star, Vuong Dinh Hue, were relegated to the relatively powerless positions of state president and head of the National Assembly.

Trong is now 78 and intends to cement his legacy. Since 2016, he has gone down in history as an implacable enemy of corruption. In 2021, he oversaw the dismissal of Hanoi’s party leader for forgery and money laundering, prosecutions of individuals linked to the former Ho Chi Minh City party leader, and a purge of senior guard officers. ribs.

Trong also seeks to rid the PCV of “self-evolution” – the idea that the Party could lead Vietnam to more inclusive decision-making and broader participation in government by groups unaffiliated with the Party. But he is running out of time – ill health could force the general secretary to step down before his term ends in 2026.

The regime continues to cleanse Vietnamese public space of citizens it perceives as troublemakers. Journalist Pham Doan Trang, sentenced in December to nine years in prison, was one of many sentenced in 2021 for “propaganda against the state”. At the same time, harsh sentences for farmers accused of mounting an insurrection have made land rights activists realize that resistance to expropriations is futile.

In December, after revelations that made headlines overseas, Facebook pledged to stop authorizing the regime’s efforts to crack down on online criticism of Vietnamese bloggers. In the past, Hanoi has brought foreign social media to heel simply by squeezing their local ad revenue.

Now that the leaders of the once robust “democratic movement” are in jail or in exile, it is hard to see why the regime is not letting up. Prime Minister Chinh, in particular, appears to have been stung by criticism of the regime’s record on political freedoms. He repeatedly told reporters that human rights in Vietnam are not as they are imagined in the West. The job of the party-state, he said, is to ensure that the citizens of the nation are comfortable and happy, knowing that national politics is well managed and no one is left behind. account in times of crisis.

In 2021, Vietnam’s decades-old “no foreign alliances” policy has been further accentuated by contentious relations between China, on the one hand, and the United States and its Asian allies, on the other. somewhere else. When US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and then-Vice President Kamala Harris visited Hanoi in July and August respectively, they urged Vietnam to consider a broad-based “strategic partnership” with states. -United. Credible stories are circulating that Vietnam’s top leadership has reached a principled consensus on improving relations with the United States, but, worried about China’s reaction, they are reluctant to formalize a deal.

Two scandals resounded in 2021 in Vietnam. One was simply obscene – cellphone pictures showed General To Lam, the public security minister, eating bites from a foil-wrapped steak at a fancy London restaurant.

The second scandal involved Viet A, a previously obscure medical equipment supplier. The company was revealed to have charged disease control centers in several provinces extremely high prices for COVID-19 test kits – something impossible without black payments and collusion up and down the supply chain. ‘supply. It was the kind of thing that periodically casts doubt on the integrity of Vietnam’s “socialist market economy”.

As 2022 begins, the CPV’s powerful anti-corruption steering committee and police units are investigating the ostensibly lucrative involvement of senior officials from the Ministry of Health and Science and Technology. For Vietnam, 2022 essentially looks like a return to robust export-led growth, a relentless effort by the CPV to maintain control of public discourse and a wary eye on US-China tensions. General Secretary Trong’s uncertain health is a wildcard; observers close to CPV politics say that, just in case, Chinh, Phuc and Hue are again seeking votes in the party’s central committee.

David Brown is a former US diplomat with extensive experience in Southeast Asia and particularly in Vietnam.

This article is part of a EAF Special Feature Series on 2021 in review and the year ahead.

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